Washington -- THE WHITE HOUSE scene resembled a "Who's Who" of the American past. Or a wax museum tableaux.
East Room chandeliers glinted on graying, balding heads of once-powerful honchos from every administration back to Ike, LBJ and JFK.
They'd seen it all over four decades -- the wars, racial tumult, political shocks. Now they were watching embattled Bill Clinton begin the fight to hold onto his presidency.
Worse, if you believe the whispers, they saw Mr. Clinton struggling to hang onto his party's nomination against Democratic rebels who fear he'll lead them to a 1996 disaster.
Is Mr. Clinton so frayed by the Nov. 8th election fiasco that he's a dead-meat president -- doomed like Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter by challenges from his own party?
BTC Will he, as gloomsayers predict, quit before he gets to the '96 starting gate?
Oddly, although this was a Monday pep rally before votes on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, Mr. Clinton couldn't resist musing about the cantankerous mood that humiliated Democrats on Nov. 8.
He quoted a critic who called GATT "another crazy, self-defeating idea to kill working people." True, said Mr. Clinton, "the most troubling trend in American life" is the 12-percent decline in wages of non-college-educated males over the past 10 years.
"The resentments of people who keep working harder and falling behind make them feel they've been given the shaft," said Mr. Clinton. "Those resentments play out in unpredictable ways, as they did in 1992 and 1994."
The prez didn't add, "And maybe 1996."
He's put his finger on the wound, all right. The Revolt of the Working White Male (66 percent voted against Democrats) shattered Mr. Clinton's party on Nov. 8. Disenchanted working stiffs don't like the way the country's going. And they don't like Mr. Clinton. He's got perhaps a year to win them back.
If he fails, if the same angry, anxious mood roils the country, will a "Dump Bill" movement ignite? In Washington scuttlebutt, there are two unrosy scenarios.
Script No. 1: It's late 1995. Recession has stopped the economy's surge. Unemployment hits hard in the blue-collar states of Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Radio talk shows blame Clinton. Whitewater hearings take a toll. His approval rating plummets to the low 30s.
On a chilly day, limos pull up to the White House. What's left of the Senate's Democratic cadre -- Byrd, Kennedy, Glenn, Moynihan, Biden -- hold a melancholy powwow with Mr. Clinton.
"Mr. President, you've tried hard," says Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., waving the dismal polls. "But for the party's sake, we urge you not to run again. We'd get blown out in a landslide."
Mr. Clinton says he'll think about it. The next day in a press-room appearance, he echoes LBJ's 1968 stunner: "I shall not seek and will not accept the nomination for another term."
Is Script No. 1 plausible? Yep -- all but the ending. I can't imagine a politician as tenacious as Bill Clinton quitting. Where Democrats saw cataclysm, he'd see comeback. He'd refuse to go in the tank.
Script No. 2: By late next year, Mr. Clinton is savaged by similar knife cuts -- recession, Whitewater, sliding polls. Squabbles and vetoes against Newt Gingrich deepen his liberal image. Amid Democrats' "save the party" cries, Senator X challenges Mr. Clinton. Then whips him in a New Hampshire primary.
The big flaw: There's no Senator X.
Everyone fantasizes about Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., a non-admirer who called the Nov. 8 slam-dunk a "sharp repudiation of the president." Mr. Kerrey, though, got his fill of national politics with his lackluster '92 run. He's head of a commission that will advocate changing Social Security benefits, poison pill to presidential ambitions.
Sure, Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., or Bill Bradley, D-N.J., might make substantial runs at Mr. Clinton. Neither's remotely interested.
Their problems: Time and money. Sticking the shiv into a sitting president is old Democratic drama -- Estes Kefauver chased out Harry Truman in '52, Eugene McCarthy embarrassed Lyndon Johnson in '68, Ted Kennedy pursued and fatally weakened Jimmy Carter in '80. But in 1996's front-loaded primaries, a rebel must gear up immediately. And raise millions.
That doesn't mean Mr. Clinton will go untested inside his party. Even George Bush had Pat Buchanan nipping at his heels. But the challenge may come from the kook fringe.
More likely is a Script No. 3: Mr. Clinton wins a grudging Chicago nomination, then faces a field split by Ross Perot and Jesse Jackson. In that madhouse he'd have a helluva struggle getting 43 percent.
For depressed Democrats, fearful of Mr. Clinton's albatross, consider the wisdom of Emperor-to-be Gingrich, expressed on a CBS interview:
"I'm a historian, I believe anything is possible. Sure, I think there's a real possibility you'll see a second [Clinton] administration."
4 So buck up, Dems. I mean, would Newt lie to you?
Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.